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The Multi-Door Courthouse-Part 4: District of Columbia Story

Written by special guest author Jeannie M. Adams

The Multi-Door Dispute Resolution Courthouse story will be told in four blog entries. Part 1 will focus on the concept. Part 2: the Tulsa, Oklahoma, story. Part 3: the Houston, Texas project. Part 4: District of Columbia Superior Court.

Overview: The Multi-Door Dispute Resolution Courthouse Story (by Larry Ray)

In the early 1980’s the ABA (American Bar Association) Dispute Resolution Initiative* decided that they wanted to be actively involved in a futuristic dispute resolution project. Under the leadership or Chair Ronald L. Olson, Vice Chair and Harvard Law Professor Frank E. A. Sander and Executive Director Larry Ray, they rediscovered Sander’s visionary idea of the multi-door courthouse which had been presented at the Pound 1976 Conference.**

Professor Frank E.A. Sander in 1976 presented the vision of a multi-door courthouse. Each door would represent a dispute resolution process ranging from mediation to arbitration. Each dispute presented to the courts would be analyzed in an attempt to match the complaint with the most appropriate dispute resolution process. This matching might be called the taxonomy of dispute resolution.

The Multi-Door Dispute Resolution Division Superior Court of the District of Columbia Story as presented by Director Jeannie M. Adams.

During a presentation at the 1976 Pound Conference about public dissatisfaction with the justice system, Harvard Professor Frank E.A. Sander offered an innovative approach that could ease the growing demands on courts throughout the country. Calling his concept the multi-door courthouse, Professor Sander envisioned one large courthouse with multiple dispute resolution “doors” or options. Cases could be diagnosed and referred through the appropriate “door” for resolution. The “doors” or options could be located inside or outside of the courthouse and could include, but would not be limited to, litigation, conciliation, mediation, arbitration, and social and governmental services.

After a careful study of the multi-door concept, the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on Dispute Resolution identified three experimental program sites: Tulsa, Oklahoma; Houston, Texas; and the Superior Court in Washington, D.C. The American Bar Association hoped to determine if the multi-door concept would improve the administration of justice. The goals of the multi-door experiment were to provide easy access to justice, to establish networks that would reduce or eliminate citizen frustration, and to develop and improve programs to fill service gaps, thereby making available more doors through which disputes could be resolved.

The experimental program in the D.C. Superior Court was established in 1985. Four years later, in February 1989, former Chief Judge Fred B. Ugast declared the experiment a success and designated the program as a full operating division of the court. The Superior Court continues to make the provision of dispute resolution a priority.

In 1985, the Intake and Referral Center was the first Multi-Door program established in the Superior Court. Trained Dispute Resolution Specialists are available to assist residents of the District of Columbia metropolitan area to consider options for resolution of their disputes. If the Dispute Resolution Specialist is unable to conciliate the dispute, the citizen will be referred to an appropriate legal, social service, or dispute resolution organization.

In the same year, the Small Claims Program became the first dispute resolution program offered to the public to enhance access to justice in the D.C. Superior Court. Mediators are available daily in the Small Claims Court to help parties reach a mutually satisfactory resolution of disputed claims of $10,000 or less. In 1991, Small Claims mediators began to mediate collection cases with claims of $25,000 or less. In 2020, approximately 50% of the small claims cases entering mediation were resolved with the help of a mediator.

The Family Mediation Program began operation late in 1985. Initially, cases entering family mediation came to the program on a voluntary basis and involved issues of child support, custody, visitation, spousal support, and property division. Mediation continues to be available prior to filing a formal complaint in court or at any time after filing a complaint, even on the day of trial or at the hearing. Specially-trained family mediators also mediate cases with tax and pension issues. Cases ineligible for joint mediation are those involving the use of weapons, serious injury by one party to the other, a long history of repetitive violence, or child abuse. These cases are typically offered video conference or shuttle mediation, but they may be referred back to court for resolution.

Court-annexed, non-binding arbitration was initiated in 1987 through a grant from the National Institute for Dispute Resolution and the Meyer Foundation. Approximately 400 cases filed in the Civil Division were randomly assigned to arbitration during a two-phase experimental period between 1989 and 1991. The court's Research and Development Division compared arbitrated cases with a control group of similar cases that were litigated. At that time, approximately 75% of the cases arbitrated were dismissed or otherwise disposed of within 120 days, as compared with 10% of the litigated cases. In addition, litigants surveyed responded favorably to the concept of court-ordered arbitration. Presently, Multi-Door maintains a roster of arbitrators, and litigants are able to select the neutral who will arbitrate their case. With the passing of time, mediation has grown in popularity, but the option of arbitration remains open to clients of the Superior Court.

In a continuing effort to educate the legal community about ADR techniques and to reduce the number of the court's oldest pending civil cases, the court initiated another successful ADR experiment called Settlement Week. For one week each year from 1987 through 1989, all civil trials were suspended for one week during which volunteers mediated between 700 and 900 cases over a five-day period. The success of Settlement Week encouraged the court to make mediation available to civil litigants year round, even for the most complex cases. At the request of one of the parties, the court would order all parties to participate in at least one mediation session. Mediation led to settlement or resolution in 53% of these cases.

In late 1989, the court began planning a comprehensive Civil Delay Reduction Program. The court anticipated that this program would bring civil case processing in the Superior Court into compliance with the ABA's guidelines for timely disposition of civil cases. The Civil Delay Reduction Program includes the use of automated case processing, individual calendar assignments, differentiated case management, and incorporates the use of mediation, arbitration, and neutral case evaluation.

To assist with the conversion to the Civil Delay Reduction Program, the Multi-Door Division mediated approximately 3,100 of the oldest civil cases between October 1989 and January 1991, resolving approximately half of them. When the Civil Delay Reduction Program became operational in January of 1991, the Division began offering mediation, neutral case evaluation, and binding and non-binding arbitration for most civil cases filed in the court.

Furthermore, the presiding judge of the Probate and Tax Divisions began to refer ad hoc probate and tax assessment matters to mediators who helped to settle more than 75% of the cases referred during the early years of these programs. In 1998, the government added an additional settlement opportunity to the procedure for handling tax assessment cases prior to court filing. As a result, many more cases are now settled at the agency level. Contested residential and commercial tax assessment cases continue to be referred to mediation following a status hearing with the judge. In 2003, 151 cases were referred to mediation. In 2020, 530 cases were scheduled to mediate. As this program continues to grow, so too does the settlement rate. In 2003, 27% of tax cases settled in mediation. In 2020, 57% of these cases were resolved through mediation.

In order to provide comprehensive ADR services, the Division has developed extensive training and educational programs for its approximately 200 volunteers. The Division has set in place numerous quality control mechanisms, such as user surveys, mentorships, and individual peer reviews.

In addition, frequent requests for technical assistance from other states and countries confirm the Court's international reputation for maintaining one of the most comprehensive court-based ADR programs. Individuals and delegations from around the world continue to visit the Multi-Door Division.

Today, the Multi-Door Dispute Resolution Division maintains a staff of 28 full-time employees and several Dispute Resolution Specialists to administer the recruitment and training of new mediators as well as its several dispute resolution programs. From its humble beginnings, the Division has grown to include the Community Information and Referral Program, Civil ADR Program, and the Small Claims, Family, Landlord & Tenant, Probate, and Tax Assessment Mediation Programs. Through these programs, the Division provided a neutral forum for dispute settlement in about 6,000 matters in 2020.


Maximum Influence, The 12 Universal Laws of Power Persuasion, Kurt W. Mortensen.

Say What You Mean. Get What You Want, A Businessperson’s Guide to Direct Communication, Judith C. Tingley, Ph.D.

How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie. “The first-and still the best book of its kind-to lead you to success.”

How to Negotiate Like a Child-Unleash the Little Monster Within to Get Everything You Want, Bill Adler, Jr., ISBN 0-8144-7294-X

Making Your Case-The Art of Persuading Judges, Antonin Scalia and Bryan A. Garner,, ISBN 978-0-314-18471-9


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